How public policy has and hasn’t increased equity for Black Mainers

Black History Month is an opportunity to reflect on the extent to which Maine has seen recent progress on reducing inequalities that impact Black Mainers. Data shows recent changes such as the minimum wage increases and strong labor market have improved outcomes for Black people living in Maine, but they still face significant hardships compared to most white Mainers. 

Maine’s Black population

According to the most recent Census Bureau data (2022), approximately 30,000 Mainers out of a population of 1.4 million identify as Black or African American, either alone or in combination with another race or ethnicity. Though the number of Black Mainers has doubled since 2008, it represents a small share of the state’s total population (approximately 2 percent). A little under half of Black people living in Maine immigrants or the US-born minor children of immigrants, while the remainder have deeper roots in the United States. These two groups face some similar obstacles, particularly with social discrimination, but each also has distinct economic and social circumstances. Multigenerational African Americans are impacted by the long legacy of slavery, Jim Crow segregation, and other historically racist policies in the US. Meanwhile, the majority (though not all) of Maine’s immigrant Black population arrived recently from Africa as refugees or asylum seekers, escaping harrowing circumstances and arriving with very few resources. Because of these different contexts, it is helpful to examine trends for the two groups separately. 

While first and foremost it is a moral imperative for policymakers to ensure no one is left behind, our economy is not as strong as it can be until everyone is able to thrive. The experiences of Black Mainers often highlight fundamental weaknesses in our public policies because they are often the first Mainers to be impacted by systemic failures, which go on to affect all of us.  

A strong labor market and higher minimum wage moved Black Mainers out of poverty

Economic inequality is so historically entrenched in the US that even stories of progress are in the context of large disparities. This is evident in the change in Maine’s Black poverty rate, which has seen a marked improvement in recent years, but is still high. 

In the period 2018-2022, the one in four Black immigrants and minor children of immigrants was living below the federal poverty level, while for other black Mainers the proportion was one in eight. (The federal poverty level is a measure that varies by family size and is intended to represent a basic level of subsistence for a family which spends one third of its household budget on a very basic menu of grocery staples. In 2022, the federal poverty level for a family of three was just over $23,000 a year.) 

Over the same period, the poverty rate for white, non-Hispanic Mainers was a little under 9 percent, meaning multigenerational African Americans were more than one and a half times as likely to be living in poverty as white non-Hispanic Mainers, while for Black immigrants and their children, the rate was almost three times as high. 

On the other hand, those rates represent a real improvement from prior years. For example, in the period 2012-2016, the poverty rate for multigenerational Black Mainers averaged 35 percent, and for immigrant Black Mainers and their children, 56 percent. This was approximately three times and five times, respectively, the rate for white, non-Hispanic Mainers at the same time. 

At least some of this improvement can be attributed to the increased state minimum wage since 2017, which has led to fewer working Mainers of all races living in poverty. Because Black Mainers are more likely to be working for lower wages, increases to the minimum wage lift a larger share of them out of poverty.  

A dramatic improvement in the labor market has also moved Black Mainers out of poverty. While the data is not precise enough to analyze short-term trends in unemployment between the different Black communities in Maine, we do know that in the period between 2019 and 2023, the Black unemployment rate averaged 7.6 percent. That’s twice the rate for white, non-Hispanic Mainers over the same time period (3.8 percent), but a substantial reduction from prior rates. Between 2015 and 2019, for example, the Black unemployment rate averaged 8.4 percent, while the white non-Hispanic unemployment rate averaged just 3.5 percent.  

Nationally, and at the state level, African Americans are typically the last to see the benefits of strong labor markets, and the first to get laid off during a recession. This is partly due to simple discrimination based on race which, while illegal, still occurs. There are also less obvious forms of discrimination, such as the segregation of communities by race making it harder for Black Mainers to get jobs based on personal connections. But it is also due to structural factors, such as biases in the criminal justice system leading to larger numbers of Black Americans having a criminal record, or the high cost of college making it harder for Black Americans to get a credential that advances their career. 

Data over the longer term suggests immigrant Black Mainers and their children have a harder time finding work than Black Mainers from multigenerational communities. Over the decade 2014-2023, the unemployment rate for white non-Hispanic Mainers averaged 3.9 percent. For Black multigenerational Mainers the rate was 6.8 percent and for immigrants or second-generation African Americans, the rate was 9.1 percent. Because the unemployment rate is only measured for people actively seeking work, this disparity cannot be due to the lack of work authorization for people seeking asylum. Factors that could contribute include less language fluency or a shorter work history in the US for some jobseekers, and the possibility that Black immigrants and their children face discriminatory or structural barriers in addition to those facing the multigenerational Black community. 

Lessons for lawmakers

The recent history of Black Mainers in our economy poses several lessons for lawmakers to consider. One is to be mindful whether the use of average population statistics hides important experiences of marginalized groups. Headline poverty or unemployment rates can appear low, but still be high for Black Mainers and others who face systemic barriers in our economy. This is particularly striking in the case of unemployment data, where an overall rate of around 4 percent is often called the “natural rate of unemployment,” or the rate below which unemployment cannot fall without causing large inflationary effects. But it’s hard to consider 4 percent a “natural low” when that means Black Americans living through an economy with an unemployment rate of 8 percent or higher.  

Lawmakers need to be aware of these long-term disparities in economic success — many of which stem from historic policy choices which have disadvantaged Black Mainers — and make proactive policy decisions to close the gaps. 

These policy solutions can include ending exclusions to the minimum wage laws like those for farmworkers, which disproportionately leave out Black Mainers; increasing the affordability of college, which is disproportionately out of reach for Black Mainers; and by increasing enforcement of existing anti-discrimination laws through steps like establishing a civil rights unit in the Office of the Attorney General. Bills to take all these steps are in front of lawmakers this year and would help advance racial equity in real ways.